Thursday, 19 October 2017

Points of no return

One of the arguments put forward by those justifying their support for Brexit is that all the woes predicted by supporters of Remain have not come to pass; things aren’t nearly as bad as they said they would be.  And to the extent that some Remainers predicted the end of the world starting the day after the vote, that is true.  The point is, however, that many of the predictions weren’t about what would happen after the vote, but about what would happen after Brexit – and Brexit hasn’t actually happened yet.
There are still two views amongst economists about what will actually happen in the immediate aftermath of Brexit itself.  The majority view is clearly that the economy will take a hit, whilst a minority continue to argue that it will be the opening of great opportunities.  Given the persistent long term failure of economic forecasts to get anything much right, I can understand anyone’s reluctance to put much store in any predictions, from either side.  I tend to the view that, in the long term, the UK economy will adapt to the new circumstances, but that there will be a serious hit in the short term.  Whether that’s a price worth paying depends in no small measure on whether you’re one of those paying it or not; my suspicion is that the cost will fall on those least able to bear it, and not on the leading advocates of Brexit, many of whom seem to be on the wealthy side already.
There is a sense, however, in which the cause of that economic hit isn’t Brexit itself; it’s not the sudden change in circumstances the day after we leave, for all the talk of cliff edges.  The cause is, rather, the myriad of independent decisions about location and investment taken by businesses about how they will respond to the changes which they expect to happen on or after that date.  Most of those decisions won’t be taken on or after Brexit day itself, they’ll be taken in advance.  Whilst they would like to have the certainty of knowing what the outcome will be before they take their individual decisions, the planning horizon is such that many are already taking those decisions, and more will do so in the coming weeks and months.  They will have to make assumptions in order to do so – and the safest assumption to make at present is that Brexit will happen, and that the UK will find itself in the worst possible trading position vis-à-vis the EU.  The damage, in most cases, might not kick in until after Brexit, but the decisions causing that damage will have been taken in advance.
Each of those individual decisions represents a small point of no return: siting a factory, moving a head office, or upgrading existing facilities – these are not short term decisions.  Once those decisions are taken, even cancelling Brexit would not lead to their reversal.  The Brexiteers claim that they are frustrated by the slow progress of negotiations, but this looks like playing a game to me, not least because the slowness of the progress is largely down to their own continued insistence on having cake and eating it.  I suspect that they’re really rather pleased at the slow progress.  On the one hand, it might give them the excuse that they need to talk away, which is what many of them really want to do even if that isn't what they said in advance; and on the other hand, even if they don’t just walk away, the scenario outlined above about decisions being taken now simply means that we’re getting to the same place slowly, one decision at a time.
There is not one single clear point of no return in this process, but continued obfuscation and delay suits the agenda of those who want a sort of economic revolution, with the UK becoming a low tax low regulation offshore island.  It’s an article of faith to them that this will be a better Britain; the question for the rest of us is, or should be, ‘better for whom?’.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Not depending on Labour

There are always dangers in ‘reading across’ from one situation to another; all countries have their own political traditions and experiences and those shape events and attitudes.  With that caveat, there are also similarities and parallels at times.
The PSOE in Spain occupies a similar part of the political spectrum as does the British Labour Party, and the two parties are part of the same grouping in the European Parliament.  The response of the PSOE to the situation in Catalunya has been to give its full support to the conservative government in its response to the referendum and any declaration of independence.  It argues for that position on the basis of upholding the Spanish constitution, and it is as absolutely committed to the unity of the Spanish state as the conservative government.
It isn’t a question of ‘left’ vs ‘right’, although historically the ‘left’ and the independentistas in Catalunya found themselves on the same side during the Civil War.  With the benefit of hindsight, and looking at the stance of the ‘left’ today, that almost seems to be more by accident than by design; having a common enemy to fight against doesn’t mean agreement on what should follow the defeat of that enemy. 
Although the Catalan government is led by a broadly ‘centrist’ party, the more centrist independentistas in Catalunya were pushed into holding the referendum by the more ‘left-wing’ parties in the coalition there, but PSOE nevertheless prefer to side with the PP (Conservative) government rather than support a more leftist vision for Catalunya, even though many would argue that the PP are, effectively, the heirs to Franco.  Preferring to work with the central political ‘right’ rather than the independentista political ‘left’ is a clear echo of the Labour Party’s position on Scotland and Wales.
Fortunately for Catalunya, the independentistas, whatever their political perspective, have long ago given up any hope that the Spanish ‘left’ will aid or support them, and have instead depended on a range of parties promoting the Catalan viewpoint, from a range of positions on the political spectrum.  There are clear lessons there for those independentistas in Wales who still harbour the illusion that the Welsh branch of the British Labour Party can somehow be nudged or cajoled into supporting the aspirations of those who seek independence.  When push comes to shove, they will always show their true colours as we have clearly seen time and again in Scotland; spending time trying to cosy up to and influence a British party (which is what the strategy of some seems to be) is a diversion from the real job of winning the hearts and minds of Welsh voters.
* I generally try and avoid terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’; they’re far too simplistic and general to be meaningful in many contexts.  I think, however, that the generalizations make at least some sense in this specific context.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Challenging 'obvious' assumptions

Yesterday, ClickonWales published an article by Labour AM, Mike Hedges, arguing for a long-term devolution settlement for Wales.  Whilst thinking aloud by Labour politicians is generally something to be welcomed, the problem with this one is that it did more to highlight the underlying axiomatic beliefs driving Labour than it contributed to original thought on the question of devolution.
Let’s start with the basic premise: that “We have had three devolution settlements for Wales and we are no closer to a long term settlement than we were before the first”.  As statements of fact go, it can’t be faulted; but the underlying assumption (i.e. that there should be a long term settlement) goes undiscussed and unchallenged - it is merely taken as read.  But why?  What is it about the constitutional relationship between England and Wales which requires us to draw up a settlement at a point in time and then stick to it?  In fairness, it isn’t just Mike Hedges and the Labour Party who suffer from this mental blockage; the Tories have been heard often saying the same thing, although they usually put it in pejorative terms such as ‘stop obsessing about the constitution and use the powers you’ve got’. 
And that, actually, illustrates the real reason why the UK parties are so keen to reach a point where they can claim that there is a long-term settlement; they want to put a limit on how far the process can go.  Perhaps they don’t all want to put the limit in the same place, and Mike Hedges seems to be willing to go further than many others, but ultimately, the wish for a long-term settlement is about reaching a point where the process can be halted rather than advancing it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that per se; it’s a valid position to hold, but it would be better if they could be more honest about their intention.
There is another aspect to my challenge about what’s wrong with a continuing process as well.  The situation in which Wales has found itself, from the outset of devolution with the referendum in 1997, has been as the subject of an interplay of forces, sometimes between parties, but more noticeably within one party in particular, Labour.  At no point has anyone really sat down and thought about what would be the right thing to do (and fair play to Mike Hedges - that seems to be what he wants to do): the outcome has always been a question of compromise at a point in time.  This particular contribution to debate is just one position amongst many.  I see zero prospect of it becoming the accepted position of his party, which means that the tensions between different players will continue.  Moving forward one compromise at a time is the best that Wales can hope for; and in that context talk of anything being for the long-term is just wishful thinking.
But there’s a second aspect to the question of axiomatic beliefs revealed by the article as well.  Whilst I can’t disagree with the statement that “Surely the question to be asked is what needs to be controlled by Westminster in order to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom as opposed to what each ministerial department desires to keep under its control”, which makes eminent sense from a unionist perspective, it leaves open the question of how we decide what fits where.  How do we define ‘needs to be controlled’?  Fear not, because for Hedges, the answer is ‘obvious’ – “There are the obvious areas that need to be held centrally: Defence, Foreign affairs, national security, currency, interest rates, overseas aid, immigration, Driver and car licensing, central bank and National Insurance numbers”
Declaring something to be ‘obvious’ is a way of trying to avoid challenge or debate, but I could look at any of those areas and argue for an element of devolution, even within a continued union.  Why for instance, must driver and vehicle licensing be a central function?  In the light of Brexit, there have already been proposals that Wales and Scotland should be able to set their own immigration quotas if they wish – why is it ‘obvious’ that they should not, and that ‘immigration’ must be centrally controlled?  Even in what is perhaps the most ‘obvious’ of all, Defence, why would it be impossible for, for instance, fishery protection using armed patrol boats (normally the preserve of the Royal Navy) to be devolved?  I’m not proposing any of these as policies here, merely challenging why they are axiomatically ruled out.
If we’re serious about asking what ‘needs’ to be controlled by Westminster, all of these should be open to debate.  Closing them all off on the basis of their being ‘obvious’ is another indication of an attempt to set limits on devolution, not debate what it should look like if we started with a clean sheet.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Beliefs and facts

Last week’s research findings about the unwillingness of people in Wales to lose anything as a result of Brexit are interesting, but there are dangers in the obvious interpretation.  A reluctance to pay anything for the perceived advantages of Brexit might, at first sight, encourage those of us who think Brexit a mistake to believe that they can be persuaded to change their minds.  But there is nothing in the least inconsistent between supporting Brexit and at the same time being unwilling to pay a penny for the privilege for anyone who simply declines to believe that there is any cost associated with Brexit.
We were told repeatedly during the referendum campaign and since by the exponents of Brexit that not only would there be no cost, there would even be a huge financial gain.  Seen from that perspective, a question about ‘how much are you willing to pay?’ is entirely hypothetical; answering it by saying ‘nothing’ whilst continuing to support Brexit is entirely consistent.  And the exponents of Brexit are still arguing that Brexit will be an overall gain for the UK.  Last week’s noise about spending money now to prepare for a ‘no deal’ wasn’t just about being ready for that scenario – listening to those making the case, much of it was about showing those foreign johnnies that we’re really, really serious about walking away if they don’t give in to our demands now.  It’s a position that makes sense if, and only if, they believe that not having a deal is better than having one, and that having a deal is more about us helping the EU27 than about them helping us.
There’s also the little question of confirmation bias.  For those who believe that Brexit will leave us better off, any suggestion that it won’t is just more ‘remoaning’; and if it actually comes to pass that we really are worse off after Brexit, then it will be the fault of everyone except those who voted for it.  Those nasty Europeans, the treacherous remainers who failed to jump on board the wagon, the half-hearted Brexiteers in the government and civil service – they will all be more to blame than those who actually led us to this point.  And besides, perhaps there would have been an economic downturn anyway – who can really prove that it’s down to Brexit?
Confirmation bias is an extremely powerful force; we should not read anything very much into research which shows that people who think Brexit will bring us net benefits aren’t willing to accept a net loss.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Parties and politics in Wales

One aspect of the situation in Catalunya which has attracted a bit more attention in the light of recent events is that the independence movement there does not depend on only one political party.  Indeed, the main, arguably centrist, party of independentistas, led by Carles Puigdemont, had to be pushed into committing to, and then organising, the referendum by smaller, more left-leaning, coalition partners.  Catalunya is no exception in this regard; the normal situation in most countries seeking independence is that there are several pro-independence parties, occupying different positions on the traditional ‘left-right’ spectrum, and that whilst they might agree on the aim of independence they are usually at loggerheads on almost everything else.  Even in Scotland, there are now two pro-independence parties represented in the parliament, and another three such parties contested the last elections.  Compared with the European norm, Wales is very much the exception.
In that context, the proposal floated by Royston Jones on Jac o’ the North, to establish a new party in Wales, could be seen as an attempt to normalise the situation here, by having a political party seeking to make the case for independence from a different political perspective than that of Plaid Cymru.  And it is also, of course, a reaction to the failure of Plaid Cymru to advance outside its core Welsh-speaking heartland.
I don’t share much of Royston’s political perspective, but that will surprise no-one.  And I’ve never been a supporter of the idea that a political party can campaign for independence and have no policies on anything else - which is an argument that I’ve heard advanced over the years - unless it is an ‘abstentionist’ party, fighting to win seats but then not taking them.  Non-party campaign groups, such as Yes.Cymru can certainly avoid taking a stance on other issues, but a political party fighting elections with the intention of taking seats will inevitably get involved in voting for or against policies in the legislature to which its members are elected, even to the extent of deciding which other party forms or leads the government.  Those voting for them surely have a right to know what they’re voting for before casting their ballot.  I have no regrets whatever over the small role that I played in the 1970s in moving Plaid into a clearer political stance.
I do share some of Royston’s analysis about where we’ve got to as a result, though.  I can understand why some people who support independence but disagree with Plaid’s stance on certain issues find it difficult to vote for Plaid, and feel that their views are not being represented.  Having a party which does seek to represent that political stance might indeed help to increase the overall level of support for independence, or at least give political expression to a wider cross-section of it.
I also share the frustration at the existence of a political party in Wales which seems to want to claim the exclusive right to represent all independentistas whilst being unsure as to whether it really wants independence at all, and reluctant to campaign openly for that end.  Whilst not sharing the whole of his analysis, I can entirely understand his frustration at the sight of a party which fails to put the case, is making no progress politically, and seems more interested in forming alliances with a British ‘left’ which has little if any sympathy with the idea of an independent Wales.  No party has the right to claim exclusivity on a particular issue, especially if it isn't doing very much about that issue.
This is not the first attempt to form an alternative political party to promote independence for Wales, and it probably won’t be the last.  But the biggest single obstacle to any such attempt to normalise the political situation in Wales remains an electoral system which rewards political unity, and penalises fragmentation.  Without changing that, I wonder how much progress the new party will be able to make.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Fudging answers

The media and opposition politicians are all being very beastly to the Prime Minister for failing to answer a simple enough question.  Failing to answer questions is what she does; why the surprise and shock now?  The real news this time is that she’s admitted that she’s not answering it, and even attempted to provide an explanation for that.  And it’s the explanation which is the most interesting part.
It’s paraphrasing, I know – but I hope fairly – but she basically said that Brexit is a very complex issue with a lot of detail to consider and if there were to be a new vote, then she would do as she did last time round, and consider all the factors very carefully before coming to a decision.  That’s not as unreasonable an answer as some have painted it; circumstances do indeed as she put it “move on”, and opinions can change in the light of that.  But isn’t that a pretty good argument for asking the question of the public again once the detail is known?  After all, if the person at the centre of all this can’t say whether she’d support it or not in a vote at this stage, why assume that all those who voted last time around can’t or won’t also reconsider the issue?

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Nations, states, prisons and freedom

The strongly-worded statement on Catalunya by UK Foreign Minister Mark Field will inevitably disappoint independentistas, but in terms of the element of surprise it’s roughly on a par with a declaration by the Pope that he’s a Catholic.  From the perspective of the UK Government, the Spanish declaration of the indissoluble unity of the territory and nation of Spain is an obvious truth, although of course that tiny little bit at the bottom of the Iberian peninsular can never be considered part of the territory of Spain.  Territorial integrity has its limits, after all.
No doubt the UK government would argue that the apparent discrepancy here is justified on the basis of the fact that every test of opinion in Gibraltar reveals that the population wish to remain British and not submit to Spanish rule, and they’d be right in that assertion.  It’s a little inconvenient, though, that they claim that the people of Gibraltar have the democratic right to decide not to be part of Spain at the same time as supporting the Spanish government’s assertion that the people of Catalunya can never be allowed the same right.
Hypocrisy and double-speak on this sort of issue are not, however, a problem for those who rule states like the UK, for reasons which are largely historical.  The larger member states of the EU – and I think here of Italy, Germany and France, as well as Spain and the UK – take their current form and occupy their current boundaries solely as the result of centuries of conflict and conquest.  The whole history of European statehood is one of shifting lines on maps, of states being born and then crushed out of existence, and of nations finding themselves in different states at different times.  For all the talk of Europe being composed of nation-states, a precise coincidence of national identity and state boundaries is very much the exception, not the norm.
Not wanting to go back to a situation where Europe is composed of a whole series of warring states arguing over where to draw lines on maps is a natural reaction to our common history (and it is our common history, whatever Theresa May might believe), but the response of demanding that the lines and structures must remain ossified at the point which they reached when the fighting stopped is a response which pretends that nationality and identity are firm, settled and objective realities.  That flies in the face of the human experience.  Preventing violent change is one thing, but preventing peaceful change ultimately makes the violent sort more likely.
Those larger states incorporating different national identities which were brought together by war and conquest pretend that they are in fact the natural state of affairs.  Those who ended up victorious in the process of aggregation of territory have long tried to meld together the disparate peoples and identities under their control into one single new ‘nation’, proving – if proof were ever needed – that the concept of what constitutes a ‘nation’ is itself highly flexible.  So, the nationalists running Spain claim that Spain is in fact one single nation, and demand that all those living within its boundaries accept the nationality thus bestowed upon them, and accept that any other identity which they might feel is ‘regional’ not national.  In its insistence on French as the only identity, France takes, if anything, an even harder line on those Bretons, Basques, Catalans, etc. who find themselves within its borders.
The history of the UK demonstrates another important aspect of this, which is that the creation of states doesn’t follow the existence of nations; it is rather that the creation of nations follows the existence of states.  The UK is defined as a nation state not because the boundaries follow those of an existing nation, but because the ‘British’ nation was created to match the boundaries of the state.  The same is true of Spain, France, Germany, Italy etc.  From the date of the incorporation of Wales into England, the state has pushed the idea that differences should be ‘extirpated’, and that all should share a common identity.
But here’s the sting: what history shows us is that even with a determined central power, and centuries of time to exercise that power, eliminating alternative identities is actually a very difficult thing to do.  It can work, up to a point, when people perceive a common interest – after all, the decline in the use of the Welsh language wasn’t a result of the actions of ‘the English’ but of those of Welsh people who bought into the idea that the future was ‘British’.  However, even with that assistance and complicity, it took centuries to get to the position where the language was spoken only by a minority; and even without the language, the ‘Welsh’ retained a sense of identity which was never entirely subsumed in Britishness.  (Whether that sense of identity should be given political expression in the structures of governance is another question entirely; the point is simply that killing a sense of national identity is no small task.)
The Spanish position on Catalunya, naturally and inevitably supported by the UK Government, is that if a Catalan nation ever existed it has subsequently been subsumed into a bigger and better Spanish nation, and that the ‘rest of that Spanish nation’ has an absolute right to over-rule the Catalans.  It’s a position which seems to make what is to most people the most obvious solution – a properly organised democratic referendum in which both sides put their case and the people decide – a non-starter.  But in the real world, there are only two ways of holding all the territory of an existing state together – the first is by consent and the second is by the exercise of force.  That a state which exists in its current form only because of the past use of force should see force as the natural means of assuring its own continuity will come as no surprise, just as the support of other states with a similar history is equally unsurprising.
Spain, like the UK, is in a sense the prisoner of its own history, with Spanish nationalists unable to see an alternative future based on co-operation rather than domination.  Part of the task of independentistas is to help the centralist nationalists escape from a prison which is of their own making.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Who's got the ball?

According to the Prime Minister, having made a few of what she calls concessions in her speech in Florence, the ball is now in the EU’s court; it’s their turn to make concessions.  It makes me wonder whether the PM and her government understand the nature of the negotiations in which they’re involved.
Actually, in most types of negotiations, she’d be right.  Typically, a negotiation between two parties sets out to improve on the current situation in ways which benefit both parties – the infamous and over-used phrase ‘win-win’ applies.  In such a circumstance, both parties know that allowing both sides to gain something means that both have to concede something, and they take turns in the process of negotiation.  And if they can’t reach an agreed position acceptable to both, then they can simply walk away from the talks, and the current situation continues.
In the case of Brexit, however, one of the parties has effectively said “we want to renegotiate this deal so that we’re considerably worse off, and we want you to change your rules to weaken your single market in order to mitigate the effects of our decision, oh, and by the way, we’re cancelling the agreement between us regardless of what you say”.  Not so much seeking ‘win-win’ as demanding ‘lose-lose’, accompanied by a degree of puzzlement as to why the other side doesn’t immediately see this as a brilliant idea. 
In return for committing a massive act of economic self-harm, the UK demands that the EU makes it possible for states to enjoy all the benefits of the single market with none of the costs, thereby threatening the integrity of both the single market and the EU itself.  In this context, the part of the Florence speech floating the idea of a two year transitional phase amounted to saying, “We’re going to reduce the amount of self-harm that we do to ourselves, but in return, we want you to start making changes which damage your single market”.  ‘Meeting in the middle’ when both sides gain is one thing; but ‘meeting in the middle’ when both sides are expected to lose is another thing entirely – especially when one side’s view of ‘fairness’ is that it lessens the impact on itself whilst increasing it for the other.
A normal part of any negotiation is to understand what ‘the other side’ want to get out of it, and ensure that what you offer them is attractive.  It may well be that May, Davis et al really do believe that weakening the rules around membership of the single market will be a good thing for the EU27 as well as for the UK.  I think they’d be wrong, but I could understand such a viewpoint from people who wish that the EU didn’t exist at all.  But they’ve not only failed to understand that things might not look the same from the other side, they’ve made no effort at all to explain to the EU27 why this is such a good idea, or how it will benefit them.  Instead, they merely demand concessions and call out the EU27 as bullies and dictators if they fail to give them.
When I read about the ‘progress’ being made in the Brexit negotiations, I’m reminded of the old story about a trade union negotiator who returned to his members and told them, “I’ve got some bad news and some good news.  The bad news is that I haven’t been able to get us a pay rise; in fact I’ve had to accept a pay cut.  But the good news is that I’ve managed to get it backdated”.  The way things are going, I suspect that even that trade union negotiator would get the UK a better deal from Brexit than the current team.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Laws and legitimacy

At the heart of events in Catalunya is a difference of opinion about the legitimacy of laws and constitutions.  The legitimacy of the position taken by the central authorities in Madrid stems from the Spanish constitution, which declares Spain to be an indissoluble whole, and the legitimacy of the position taken by the independentistas in Catalunya stems from the results of the last elections and a democratic vote in the Catalan parliament.  And from the perspective of outsiders, those supporting Madrid do so on the basis of upholding the law and territorial integrity of Spain, whilst those supporting the independentistas do so on the basis of both the democratic legitimacy of the Catalan parliament, and the wording of the UN charter, which guarantees the right of all peoples to self-government.
But one of the problems with the UN Charter is that whilst the wording is clear enough, the definition of ‘peoples’ is not; and a declaration of the rights of a ‘people’ to independence depends entirely on how we define a ‘people’ in the first place.  One of the disputes between the authorities in Madrid and those in Catalunya (and in other ‘regions’ of Spain, come to that) in recent years is whether Catalunya is a nation (as the Catalans would prefer) or a nationality (as Madrid insists, on the basis of the argument that Spain is one nation).  The implicit assumption behind that is that a ‘nation’ has rights which a ‘nationality’ does not.  Whilst the UK does not have the same debate about the precise wording, the same conflict exists under the surface, it’s just that ‘nations’ have different degrees of legitimacy.  So the UK Government is quite relaxed about using the same word (nation) to describe both Scotland and Wales on the one hand and the UK on the other, it is clear from their words and actions that they see them as two different kinds of ‘nation’. 
In both cases, the underlying question is about what a nation is and who defines it.  In the case of Spain, clearly the centre believes that it and it alone can define what is a nation, and that definition of nation can and should be imposed on all within its boundaries.  I suspect that there are some in the UK who would really like to be able to take a similar approach.  But nations are a human construct, and largely a subjective one at that.  People don’t consider themselves British or Spanish because the government insists that that is what they are; their self-identity is based on experience and history, and there are probably as many definitions of what it means to be Welsh, for instance, as there are people who claim to be Welsh.  And the same is true for any other identity.
The bigger question for me is why the question of identity or nationhood has any relevance at all here.  If the majority of the people in a particular country/region/area want to take control of their own affairs, why should it matter one iota whether they define themselves (or are defined by others) to be a ‘nation’ or a ‘people’ or not?  It seems to me that that is a wholly artificial barrier to the exercise of sovereignty by those to whom it belongs.  Ultimately, the right of any government to govern the people in the territory it delimits as belonging to it depends on the consent of those people; the right of the UK government to govern Wales, for example, cannot depend on the consent of those living in England, it can only depend on the consent of those living in Wales.  (And, by the same token, the right of the Welsh government to govern, say, Ynys Môn depends on the consent of the residents of that island – but that’s a subject for another post.)
And that goes to the heart of the current crisis in Catalunya.  Had the central authorities allowed the referendum to take place, and played a full part in it, putting their case before the people of Catalunya, opinion polls in advance suggested that there was at least a fighting chance that they would gain the continued consent of the Catalans, for a while at least – as happened in the Scottish referendum in 2014.  But effectively, they’ve simply declared that they don’t need that consent; they have the right to govern without it.  Ultimately, that is probably the best way to lose much of the consent which previously existed.  And it underlines that basic point that, in a debate of this kind, relying on a purely legalistic interpretation loses more hearts and minds that it wins.
Those who argue that law, and adherence to law, are a vital part of modern society are right in principle; but underpinning all law is legitimacy, a much vaguer concept, and that legitimacy always depends on the consent of the governed.  Failure to recognise that is a feature of dictatorship, not democracy.

Friday, 6 October 2017

A quick concession

A week or so ago, the Prime Minister gave what was reported as a robust defence of 'free market capitalism', extoling its virtues and claiming that it was under threat from Labour.  In her conference speech on Wednesday, talking about capping energy prices, she laid out an excellent exposition of why free markets don’t work, and why she is therefore going to intervene in the way the energy market works.  It was an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least.
The first thing to note is the way in which she conflated markets and capitalism.  This was either deliberate obfuscation or else she really doesn’t understand either; it’s hard to tell which in the case of Theresa May.  But they are not at all the same thing.
The ‘market’ is a product of human ingenuity and is the best enabler we’ve yet come up with for the exchange of goods and services, but it in no way depends on the use of a capitalist system for the production of those goods and services.  I can easily envisage a post-capitalist economic system which continues to use the market mechanism.  And why not?  Why throw away something proven to work?  The second question is then not about markets per se, but about how ‘free’ they are.
Insofar as there is an ideological dispute about markets, it is not about whether they should exist, it is about how they are controlled.  Very few people are calling for the abolition of markets – but there are also very few who call for completely unregulated markets.  All markets run according to a set of rules and regulations; the questions to be asked are what those rules are, who draws them up, and whose interests they serve.  Few people would argue that monopolies should be allowed to distort markets in their favour, and as we learned on Wednesday, even the Prime Minister recognises that markets with many small consumers and a very small number of large suppliers can end up favouring the suppliers rather than the consumers. 
But in saying that, she’s entirely conceded the ideological point which she was so determined to defend only last week - markets need intervention and control to make sure that they work for the interests of all participants.  Those calling for the removal of controls are invariably those who believe that they can benefit from such removal; but we need to remember that for some to benefit, others must lose.  It's not as easy as the management mantra about win-win suggests to ensure that there are no losers - dividing the world into winners and losers is the norm.  Making markets work fairly for everyone requires a degree of control and intervention - as the Prime Minister conceded on Wednesday.